Niskayuna

Niskayuna resident recounts escape from India amid COVID-19 pandemic

State Department facilitated return
Niskayuna resident Shammi Waheed is seen.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Niskayuna resident Shammi Waheed is seen.

Categories: News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

NISKAYUNA  — Shammi Waheed goes to India every year to escape the winter doldrums.

By the time the Niskayuna resident touched down in Hyderabad in mid-January, coronavirus was barely a blip on the general public’s consciousness and officials had logged just 41 cases in Wuhan, China, the virus’ origin point. 

But by mid-March, the disease had exponentially spread, leading to widespread shutdowns across the U.S. as body counts in Italy and Iran soared.

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Waheed’s son advised her it was probably a good idea to come home.

But even before the virus took grip in the world’s second-most populous country, people were spooked over strange weather, including unseasonal stretches of wind and rain.

People were sniffling and didn’t know what to make of it.

“Everybody was scared over whether it was the climate or coronavirus,” Waheed said.

She attempted to change her return date to the U.S. with Emirates. But before she could finalize her plans, the Dubai-based airlines cancelled all flights, leaving her stuck in the central Indian city.

Waheed landed a slot on a flight arranged by the U.S. State Department to fly stranded Americans out of the country.

“It was a very short time, only three days for me to get ready for everything,” said Waheed, who was approved as a special case.

She was on a flight home last Tuesday, landing in Atlanta. Before she could get to Albany, her connection was re-routed to Detroit, where she waited for hours before the next flight.

Waheed was the only passenger on the plane back to the Capital Region.

“When I came to the gate, they announced I was the only person on the flight,” she said. “It was a smooth flight.”

Ironically, Waheed arrived in New York just as the state was experiencing it’s most brutal week, a six-day stretch that saw the virus killing nearly 800 people daily, a number that has since started to ebb.

As a result, the majority of Americans living in or visiting India preferred to stay in lockdown until the U.S. outbreak subsides, the Times of India reported on Monday.


Officials have said they expect waves of outbreaks to erupt upstate, but pinpointing a timeline is difficult to predict without widespread testing.

New York state remains the epicenter of the virus, which has killed 10,056 people in the state as of late Monday, most of them in the New York City-metro area. 

But bright spots are emerging: The number of people who tested positive on Sunday is the lowest in three weeks, according to state data released Monday.

Three-day hospitalization rates are also down.

Social distancing and staying home remains critical to stamping out the spread, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said “the worst is over if we continue to be smart.”

“If we do something stupid, we see those numbers go right up tomorrow,” said Cuomo, who announced the formation of a seven-state commission on Monday designed to study how to reopen the economy.  

India imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25, barring 1.3 billion people from leaving their homes.

As a result, the virus’ spread has been limited.

By Monday, there were fewer than 10,000 cases nationwide, and just 562 total cases in her state of Telangana and 16 deaths out of 324 nationwide.

India was set to end its 21-day lockdown on Tuesday, but a spike in 796 new cases within 24 hours has officials reconsidering an extension, CNN reported on Monday.

Waheed attributed the stringent shutdown measures, including the closure of entire villages to outsiders and strict police interrogation methods, to keeping the numbers down.

Anyone caught outside is grilled by cops.

“If not, they beat them up with sticks and send them back to where they came from,” Waheed said.

And unlike in New York where clumps of sprawling families are common sights at grocery stores despite stay-at-home orders, shopping expeditions in India are reduced to one family member going outside.

“At the end of the day in India, the poor are really suffering a lot,” Waheed said. “They’re saying, ‘Before coronavirus gets to us, we’ll die of hunger’ — it’s very, very sad.”

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